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Wouldn't You Like to Know: How Your Customer Talks about Your Brand When You're Not in the Room

Do you have that one acquaintance who is always nice to your face – but then badmouths you behind your back? I’m pretty sure I do. The only problem is, I don’t know which one it is…

Brands have the same problem. Everyone will tell you what they like about you, the good things, what they appreciate. But they don’t want to tell you the bad stuff. It just feels rude to complain about someone to their face. Measuring brand perception is notoriously difficult for this reason.

There are exceptions. If your brand is an airline, you might have had an occasional customer service stumble which left passengers only too happy to raise hell. And a few customers will always complain on social media if they think it will get them compensation, or even just some attention.

 These are not representative customers, however. The majority of customers will shut up, not tell you how they feel, and simply go elsewhere next time. How can you get them to admit what they really think – so you can do something about it?

 There is some good news. Customers are willing to say how they really feel – just not to you.

So the first step is to interview them anonymously – what’s called “double-blind” in healthcare research, and “unprompted” in other categories. Make sure your agency doesn’t tell them who the client is, and you’ll eliminate one source of bias.

 But that isn’t enough to finish the job. If you ask customers to rate what they think of various brands on a scale from 1 to 10, or ask the old NPS question “Would you recommend this brand…”, you will mostly get bland results somewhere near the upper middle of the scale. Many brands don’t evoke strong feelings in the first place, and certainly not when those feelings are expressed as numerical scores.

 The real secret is to do exactly what you’d do to find out which “friend” is spreading the nasty rumours about you. Get another friend, one you can trust, to start a gossip session and see what happens.

 It shouldn’t be about you, at least not up front (that would be too obvious). Plant a few stories about other brands to warm up the respondent and get them going. Ask some easy questions – “What was the most disappointing product you can remember buying?” or “what advert makes you change the channel every time it comes on?” and gradually lead them into a conversation about your category, and eventually, your brand – mixed in with some competitors of course, as they still shouldn’t know who is really asking.

 Stories have a huge advantage over other brand perception research methods: stories are how people gossip with each other. So they already have a bank of stories in their pocket, ready to tell. Just unlock that and let the stories flow out.

 Be prepared for a bit of patience. Most of a customer’s stories won’t be about you, but about their own needs, expectations and experiences in the category. Eventually, with the right guidance, you will find the gold. If you use qualitative interviews, it is about digging further underneath, sharing your own stories about different brands, and prompting them to reply in kind. If you are using a quantitative online survey, you can instead rely on volume to make up the difference: of every thousand people, maybe a hundred will have a story to tell about your brand (depending on your fame and market share).

 If the right process has been followed, just reading through the responses will give you some golden consumer insights. Recent gossip sessions have uncovered:

  • There are few food and drink items people claim to hate, but non-alcoholic beer is one of them.
    …it is also one of the rare products that people claim to love! Very polarizing.
  • If a customer’s preferred brand is found to be ecologically unsound, the dominant emotion is guilt. People adopt some measure of responsibility for the brands they buy.
  • There is a hierarchy of emotion in TV viewing: shows you love, shows that make you laugh, shows that are entertaining, and finally shows you only “like”. But people don’t tend to have a favorite show any more – instead they have favorite platforms, channels or genres.

The next step is to work out what the stories mean. It’s gossip, after all – it is not a representative sample of opinions. The memorable stories are the ones where something extreme happened: the experience went very right, or very wrong. So a string of bad stories doesn’t spell disaster. It’s useful to have competitor stories in there too, so you can compare the number and intensity of good and bad experiences between them and you. This benchmarking stage also lets you track how you’re doing over time.

The final stage, after you’ve collected these stories, is to analyze them into a set of clustered topics and key narratives. This can be done visually (by projecting the story elements onto a map), or statistically (for example by defining a distance metric, based on how near to each other within the story each concept is mentioned). The narratives can be extracted by story structure analysis, looking at the starting points, turning points and conclusion of each story.

Some brands have used social media listening to find out what people are saying about them. That’s a reasonable first step. But just as there is a difference between listening and active listening, there is a difference between passive social media scraping, and provoking the active sharing of stories. When you actively start a conversation and properly listen to the stories people tell, storyhearing will reveal the truth about how they really see you.

 

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